Go on an eight-mile nature walk taking in the Flitch Way and Stansted Airport lagoons on the Hertfordshire and Essex border
Nature Notes columnist Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop’s Stortford
Last Monday was a gloriously bright day for my latest Nature Notes wander, so I decided on a longer walk.
I parked in Birchanger village and took the path towards the M11 near the The Three Horseshoes pub. Skylarks could be heard over the fields and a flock of wood pigeons wing-clapped their way from the trees as I approached a field just before the footbridge over the motorway. Here I stopped to check the elder tree where great tits, blue tits and a robin were calling and feeding upon the few remaining berries. Almost constantly on the move.
A large bracket fungus protruded from a tree trunk as I moved off to cross the motorway. Long-tailed tits called from the bushes by the bridge before I arrived at a junction on the bridleway. Left to the airport and right towards Hatfield Forest. This was my route.
The fields and woodland around here are left to their own devices for much of the year, providing excellent habitats for grassland insects such as the summertime butterfly species. The trees, particularly hornbeam and hazel, were planted when the new A120 was constructed to act as sound screens for the houses at Start Hill. Here, two tunnels take the wanderer under the slip road to the airport, followed by a second footbridge. Gorse grows here, still showing a few brilliant yellow flowers. It looked good for overwintering stonechats, but none were observed.
Once over the bridge the path runs parallel to the old A120, through a narrow field and to the old airport balancing pools. I took the opportunity to check the water here. After all the recent rain, the pools had all joined up to make just one large lake. Coots, moorhens and an armada of mallards paddled away to skulk in the reeds. A red kite mewed overhead but no sign of the regular kingfisher.
I retraced my steps to the path as I wanted to check an old and very gnarled willow tree. Several autumns ago I encountered several unusual fungi species growing upon the branches. Today, sadly, just more bracket fungi, turkey tail.
I continued before arriving at the end of the path. Here, I crossed the road and onto the Flitch Way. Always a good walk along here. A solid and flat surface means this section of the walk is fine for mobility scooters and those with mobility issues. I noted many of the trees had been marked with orange dots - almost all were dead or dying ash that had succumbed to Hymenoscyphus fraxineus or ash dieback. I presume these will be felled once the trees have shed their leaves, making for more light to access the verges of the path. Be interesting to see what appears along here.
Many of the access gates to the forest are padlocked at present, but the main gate is still open, as is the small gate 17 a little further on from the five-bar gate and signage. Grey squirrels scampered over the path and into the forest, raucous jays screeched at each other and a female great spotted woodpecker popped briefly into view for a quick snap.
The path opposite the large gate leads back to the road by the Kearsley Airways building. Down this lane, the old road to the airport, is Thremhall Park where ramblers can get refreshment at the splendid café. Today, I had all my food and drink with me, so continued.
More jays greeted me as I stopped to sit on the bench at Stane Street Halt. A robin popped down to share the wonky bench and a dog checked out my chicken sandwiches in the camera bag.
After a brief stop I took the path down to the road, back to Takeley Street by the Green Man pub and restaurant, turned right and headed towards the used car dealership. Here, a narrow footpath runs directly to the side of the fence. This continues into a field, over a footbridge and, having taken a left fork in the path, it deposited me at Stansted Airport lagoons.
This is one of the best bird spots around the town and one I visit on several occasions each month. Recently there have not been too many birds, particularly wildfowl species, but over the last week this has certainly changed. The two larger stretches of open water were clearly proving attractive to many species, so out with the binoculars to see what was present. The undoubted highlight was a pair of mandarin ducks. The drake is a splendidly coloured bird with intricate head feathering showing shades of orange while the duck is a much quieter coloured bird with slate blue plumage. This was my first sighting of this species here, so most pleasing.
The majority of the birds were mallards, the drakes’ metallic green heads shining brightly in the sun, but on closer inspection, much more were present: gadwall, shovelers, teal, tufted duck, a single drake pochard, coot and moorhens. On the mud were several black-headed gulls and a solitary little egret that was soon joined by an incoming grey heron.
This is a habitat that is not frequently visited by walkers, so the birds can be very flighty. It wasn’t long before most of the ducks were in the air, circling overhead, leaving just a pair of mute swans and some little grebes upon the surface. The grebes are usually found on the largest lagoon, normally by the oxygenators that pump oxygen into the water before it passes through a treatment system and out into Pincey Brook. I suspect they are at this precise location as there will be small fish and molluscs under the equipment.
I noted that there were several plant species that have been tricked into reflowering. Yarrow, red clover, bristly ox-tongue and ragwort all added colour to the grassy banks. Most surprisingly, a few ox-eye daisies had reflowered also.
I scanned the exposed mud for smaller wading birds, but just a pair of green sandpipers that rose and headed off towards the terminal. These sandpipers spend most of the year here, just leaving for a few months to head north to breed before returning in late August. I suspect they will be present all winter when many other birds will arrive to overwinter on the water.
Having checked the whole site, I made my way back to the Flitch Way for a picnic on the bench. A treecreeper called from a nearby tree, so I put the sandwiches down and managed a few photos of this bird probing the bark for insects. Having completed lunch I sauntered back, passing dog walkers, joggers, cyclists and fellow walkers. Certainly a popular footpath.
I checked the old lagoon once again before wandering into a hornbeam coppice. I was searching for fungi species, but the wood is young and none appeared to have established themselves yet, so back over the footbridges and through the tunnels to the village. All along the path, white dead-nettle was still in flower and several more rather straggly ox-eye daisies. Certainly not a plant I expect to find in flower in November. The view through the two tunnels was particularly autumnal, with the end of these highlighting the yellows and oranges of the leaves. The red of the local dogwood added to this colourful pallet.
By the time I returned to the car my pedometer showed I had covered more than eight miles in wonderful conditions - a good temperature and great light. A real pleasure to be out and about and a walk I can certainly recommend as it offers a wide range of habitats and, therefore, a good selection of wildlife.
Over the last six years of penning Nature Notes, I think I have covered every footpath within a five-mile radius of the town. If any readers have a favourite walk I would be pleased to hear about it and I can add it to my plans for forthcoming winter walks. Just email the Indie office with your suggestions. Many thanks.
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